Reflections on Numbers 11 – 30
You know what really scorches my grits? People who gripe and complain all the time. It’s like they roll out of bed on the wrong side every stinkin’ morning, drink a cup of bitter coffee and spend the rest of the day competing with each other to see who can win the gold medal of grumbling.
They’d look a gift Ferrari in the grill and complain about the paint color. You could hand them a check for $ 10,000 and they’d grouse about having to pay taxes. If it’s sunny, they harp about the heat. If it’s raining, they complain about the clouds. I am sick and tired of people who are sick and tired.
Now, did you enjoy that negatively charged paragraph? Did it invite gratitude? Inspire you to serve someone in need? Make you want to read the rest of this post? No, no, no and probably not. But I hope you will read the rest because it’s about a behavior common to everyone, especially Christians; complaining. We all do it. And, if the book of Numbers is to be believed, it’s a lot more than just a sign of surliness.
Snakes on a Plain
Arbitrarily rummaging around in Old Testament stories for moral lessons is not always an interpretive best practice. In this case, though, we have specific permission. In 1 Corinthians 10:9 – 11, Paul wrote, We should not test Christ, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.
Paul is referring to that moment in Numbers 21 when the people of Israel complained about God’s cooking and, in response, he sent venomous snakes among them. Which sounds like a major overreaction on God’s part. Either God gets his feelings hurt more easily than we imagine or complaining is more serious than we think. (Hint: Go with the latter.) In that Corinthian passage, Paul puts complaining in a list that includes idolatry and sexual immorality. That’s some pretty sordid company. Why does Paul lump complainers in with people who bow down to idols and ignore sexual boundaries? The book of Numbers knows.
Ah, the Good Old Days
In Numbers 11, the Israelites wailed “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.” The people were suffering from a serious case of selective memory. They remembered the open salad bar and all-you-can-eat fish, but forgot about the back-breaking brick making, the whip-wielding task masters and the federally mandated murder of their baby sons. The “luxuries” they enjoyed in Egypt were anything but free.
I, too, can be a world-class re-writer of history. The older I get, the better things back in the day seem. It’s one thing to remember the past fondly. That’s called gratitude. It’s another to stack the worst of today against the best of yesterday and then gripe about how things are. That’s called amnesia. Ecclesiastes 7:10 warns, Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.
Complaining is Communicable
Most folks with even a passing knowledge of the Old Testament know the story of the twelve spies sent on a reconnaissance mission into Canaan (Numbers 13). The reports Israel had heard about the Promised Land were true. It really was a land flowing with milk and honey. Ten of the spies, however, added that it was also crawling with giants and if Israel tried to attack they’d be devoured. So they spread a bad report about the land. That negative take went viral and soon, the whole nation was burning with a fever of fussiness.
In fact, there’s an interesting pattern of progression in Numbers 11 through 16.
- Chapter 11 – the “rabble among them” complain about the food God provides.
- Chapter 12 – Miriam & Aaron (Moses’ sister and brother) trash talk his marriage to a Cushite.
- Chapter 13 – Ten of the twelve spies spread a bad report about the Promised Land.
- Chapter 14 – “All the members of the community” threaten to appoint a new leader and head back to Egypt.
- Chapter 16 – A Levite named Korah and a group of well-known community leaders challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron.
It all started with a few people complaining about the food. Before you know it, a coup is underway. Grumbling can spread just as quickly through an office, a home or a church.
Shining Like Stars
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul wrote, Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life, (2:14 – 16, NIV).
That is an absolutely astounding few verses. Being without blame, possessing purity, living a fault-free life and shining like a star against the backdrop of a cheerless culture are all affected by whether I am grateful or a grumbler, by whether I count my blessings or complain. It’s not that being grateful and easy to get along with make us righteous. Only Jesus can do that. It’s that our complaints are like tuneless hymns sung to a god called self. You and I cannot witness to the wonders God has done in us and at the same time whine about how we deserve so much more or better than we’re getting. If no one is asking us about the hope that we have, maybe it’s because we don’t seem all that hopeful. Like Israel, we have a choice; we can whine or we can shine.