Fiery Snakes, Earthquakes, and Talking Donkeys

Fiery Snakes, Earthquakes, and Talking Donkeys

Written by Rev. Dr. Bill Fullilove |
Friday, November 5, 2021

If ever one could have, should have, grumbled, if ever one got what he did not deserve, it was our Lord, Jesus Christ.  But while we whine in the face of God’s blessings, he was silent in the face of God’s cursing.  “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)  Amazing grace, indeed.  Maybe just amazing enough grace to transform our grumbling and complaining into gratitude, kindness, and thanksgiving.

Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible, is undoubtedly the great book with the terrible marketing plan. The Greek title is arithmoi, the Latin numeri, and hence the English “Numbers,” a title that inspires only a few actuaries and statisticians to even open a sleepy eye. Yet, the New Testament insists that Numbers matters deeply to the Christian faith, serving as a corrective to so many common human tendencies, tendencies that creep into the church and into the Christian life, tendencies that if unchecked will twist and warp lives and communities of faith.

Grumbling holds pride of place among the signature themes of the book. The Israelites – delivered from slavery in Egypt by the ten plagues, rescued via the parting of the Red Sea, having received the Law, having seen God’s power at Sinai, eating manna daily – the very same Israelites, as they begin to march towards Canaan in Numbers 11, immediately begin grumbling and complaining about and against God.

Three episodes follow, the first merely setting the stage:

And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them. (Numbers 11:1–3, ESV)

“In the hearing of the Lord” is a technical term here, meaning that the people were gathered at the gate of the Tabernacle. This particularly defiant act is met with the fire of judgment.  Hence the name of the place, Taberah, likely from the Hebrew meaning “place of burning.”

The second episode begins to show the spiritual dynamics of complaint:

Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people went about and gathered it and ground it in handmills or beat it in mortars and boiled it in pots and made cakes of it. And the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell with it. Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the Lord blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased.(Numbers 11:4–10, ESV)

In other words, the people ate every day by a miracle, and that was not enough.

We often take God’s care and provision not just for granted, but as something onerous and burdensome.  We become accustomed to God’s gifts, much as we become accustomed to speed when riding in a car on the expressway.  Accelerating down the entrance ramp, we ease slightly back in our seats, experiencing the acceleration.  Yet, before long, 55 seems slow.  So does 65.  So does 75.  And before long, if we are not careful, we are doing 85, whizzing by others, only to suddenly have our daydream interrupted by the flashing lights of the local police department!  We become accustomed to speed, forgetting that we are not beings made to go more than a few miles per hour under our own locomotion.  So it is with God’s gifts.  We cease to notice that those gifts are even there.  We start to complain about how slow things feel, how we want more.

Even more, a complaining spirit makes them (and us) revisionist.  What do the Israelites begin doing?  Talking about how good it was in Egypt!  Remember their lives in Egypt?  They were slaves, worked to the bone, their children killed, the victims of a genocide.  Until God miraculously delivered them.  But a complaining spirit forgets all that.  They would rather – they think (Remember that they are fooling themselves, too.) – they would rather return to slavery than live in the Lord’s miraculous blessing.  Hence, along their journey the place named, Kibroth Hattaavah, “marked graves” or “graves of craving.”

Isn’t it amazing that we do the same thing?  We live every day in the miraculous love of Christ.  We are fed by his grace, both physically and spiritually.  Our every breath and being is sustained by him.  Our work and our rest are his gifts.  Yet before long we become accustomed to his gracious gifts and start to not just forget them, but to scorn them.  We find ourselves saying, “Why do I have to go to this job?  I hate it.  Why do I have to care for these children?  They take so much out of me?  Why do I have to serve as a member in this church?  I don’t like these people.”  We take God’s gifts – jobs, children, church – not simply for granted, but we start to even complain about them.

One might think these Israelites would get the picture, but chapter 12 begins with a third area of complaint, this time against Moses, the leader that God had given them:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. (Numbers 12:1–2, ESV)

God’s people love to rebel against their leaders.  In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron start to gripe about Moses’ leadership.  They begin their complaint with ethnic prejudice – racism – the fact that Moses’ wife is from Cush (modern day Ethiopia).  Sadly, the church has replicated this type of sin again and again, and we are hardly free from it today.

In verse 2, though, we realize that Miriam and Aaron are just dragging Moses’ wife into it to get at him (another thing that is far too common in the church today).  Even underneath the racism is jealousy – they betray themselves with their words: “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?”  This jealousy is particularly important, as Aaron and Miriam had leadership roles of their own, and jealous infighting among the leaders of God’s people threatens the whole expedition.  Now that is a lesson the church today needs to hear!

I must say that I am, sadly, not immune to any of this.  None of us are.  I am easily piqued and sometimes petty, full of pride.  My best charitable moments are often overwhelmed by sin, and even when I think myself free of pride, I dig deeper and find it is still there, just another layer of the onion.  I have had my share of being the guilty one (and the not guilty one) in these situations, and I think I am most scared of the times I think I was the “not guilty one.” That just smacks of rationalization.  We are easily piqued and petty, and the one writing is the chief of sinners.  And jealous infighting among God’s leaders can sink any church.

Thing is, grumbling is a precursor, not a steady state. Grumbling doesn’t simply stay put as low-level aggression and dissatisfaction. Sooner or later, it leads somewhere. In Numbers, it leads to rebellion, which characterizes the next section of the book. Chapter 13 begins with the rebellion of the spies. Israel reaches the southern edge of Canaan, sends in spies to explore the land, and receives back the report: “The land is wonderful…and full of giants. We will be crushed if we try to enter.”

At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. (Numbers 13:25–14:5, ESV)

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