Forgetfulness and Faithlessness

1 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.

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.

10 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. 11 Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” Numbers 11:1-15 ESV

The people of Israel were on the move. After nearly a year encamped near Mount Sinai, they had watched as the cloud of God’s presence departed the tabernacle, indicating His desire for them to break camp and continue their journey to the land of Canaan. They had followed His instructions and methodically made their way to the wilderness of Paran where the cloud had come to rest.

But it wasn’t long before the obedient children of God became disgruntled and obstinate. Their willingness to follow God’s leading came to a quick end as soon as they encountered any kind of discomfort or dissatisfaction. And this was not the first time they had expressed their displeasure with God. A year earlier, when they were leaving Egypt after their 400 years of captivity, they found themselves in an unexpected and highly uncomfortable predicament. After Pharaoh had finally agreed to release them, they followed Moses into the wilderness and found themselves on the shore of the Red Sea.

When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, “If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led them in a roundabout way through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle. – Exodus 13:17-18 NLT

God had led them to that very spot. It had been His will that they arrive on the banks of the sea just as Pharaoh and his army were bearing down on them. It seems that Pharaoh had experienced a change of heart and decided to force the Israelites back into slavery. So, when the people found themselves with their backs to the sea and the army of Egypt bearing down on them, they responded to Moses in anger.

“Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!’” – Exodus 14:11-12 NLT

Yet, despite their complaining, God miraculously delivered them. He had Moses part the waters of the Red Sea and they crossed over on dry ground, and the cloud of God’s presence kept the Egyptians at bay until the very last Israelite had made it to the eastern shore of the sea. Then, as Pharaoh’s army attempted to pursue them, “the waters returned and covered all the chariots and charioteers—the entire army of Pharaoh. Of all the Egyptians who had chased the Israelites into the sea, not a single one survived” (Exodus 14:28 NLT).

Their miraculous crossing and the destruction of the Egyptians made an impact on the Israelites.

When the people of Israel saw the mighty power that the Lord had unleashed against the Egyptians, they were filled with awe before him. They put their faith in the Lord and in his servant Moses. – Exodus 14:31 NLT

Now, more than a year later, it appears that their faith had run out. Once again, they find themselves struggling with discontentment concerning God’s will for them. They were not happy with their circumstances and so they began to complain to Moses once again.

Soon the people began to complain about their hardship, and the Lord heard everything they said. – Numbers 11:1 NLT

Their year-long hiatus at Mount Sinai had made them lazy and unprepared for the difficulties of traveling through the wilderness. So, the journey from Sinai to Paran left them disgruntled and dissatisfied with God’s plan for them. They were unhappy and more than willing to voice their displeasure. But again, this was not the first time the Israelites had become disenchanted with God’s will for them.

Three days after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, they found themselves in the desert of Shur, a barren place where water was scarce. When they finally discovered an oasis, its water was contaminated and undrinkable. This disappointing outcome led the people to direct their anger at Moses.

Then the people complained and turned against Moses. “What are we going to drink?” they demanded. – Exodus 15:24 NLT

But God directed Moses to a particular piece of wood that, when thrown in the spring, “made the water good to drink” (Exodus 15:25 NLT). Having temporarily satiated the thirst of His dissatisfied people, God then led them to another oasis “where they found twelve springs and seventy palm trees” (Exodus 15:27 NLT). He provided for all their needs. And He even “set before them the following decree as a standard to test their faithfulness to him” (Exodus 15:25 NLT).

“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” – Exodus 15:26 NLT

All God required of His people was that they remain faithful and obedient. In return, He promised to provide for and protect them. They would never go without. That doesn’t mean they would never experience difficulties along the way. But by trusting God, they would get to see His providential hand providing for their every need.

Yet, a year later, they exhibited the same stubborn tendency to grouse and complain at the slightest inconvenience, and God heard everything they said. As a result, “his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1 ESV). It’s unclear whether anyone actually died in this conflagration or whether it was only meant to get their attention. Whatever this “fire” was, it had its intended effect, producing fear in the hearts of the Israelites.

…the people screamed to Moses for help, and when he prayed to the Lord, the fire stopped. – Numbers 11:2 NLT

But while the fire died down, their complaining did not. It wasn’t long before another round of grievances made their way to the ears of God. It seems that the foreigners who had chosen to accompany the Israelites when they left Egypt had grown disenchanted with the manna that God had provided for them. One month after the Israelites departed Egypt, the people had expressed their displeasure to Moses and Aaron over the lack of food.

“If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” – Exodus 16:3 NLT

But God heard their complaints and responded in grace and mercy. Rather than sending fire as a punishment for their ungratefulness, He determined to shower them with manna.

“I have heard the Israelites’ complaints. Now tell them, ‘In the evening you will have meat to eat, and in the morning you will have all the bread you want. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’” – Exodus 16:12 NLT

God fed them. He miraculously met their physical needs with spiritual food. No one knew exactly what manna was. But it provided them with the strength and stamina to continue their journey to the land of Canaan. And God would provide it every day for over 40 years.

So the people of Israel ate manna for forty years until they arrived at the land where they would settle. They ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. – Exodus 16:35 NLT

Yet, just a year after having left Egypt, the people were complaining about the monotonous menu of manna.

“Oh, for some meat!” they exclaimed. “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:4-6 NLT

They returned God’s grace and mercy with ungratefulness and dissatisfaction. They didn’t like God’s culinary skills. They wanted a more varied and appetizing selection of menu options. In their faulty imaginations, they recalled enjoying a much more diverse and appealing range of food choices back in Egypt. They conveniently forgot the part about slavery and making bricks without straw. They left out the persecution and pain they had experienced during their 400 years of captivity. Driven by their physical appetites, they conjured up memories of their halcyon days in Egypt – which were nothing more than figments of their imaginations.

And, once again, their complaints reached the ears of Moses and God.

Moses heard all the families standing in the doorways of their tents whining, and the Lord became extremely angry. – Numbers 11:10 NLT

But this time, it’s Moses who displays his anger with the people and expressed his frustration with God.

“Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly? Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people? Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby? How can I carry them to the land you swore to give their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people? They keep whining to me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I can’t carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” – Numbers 11:11-15 NLT

Moses was not a happy camper. For more than a year he had been attempting to lead a people who were inflexible and incorrigible. Nothing seemed to make them happy, and he was at his wit’s end. He had had enough of their constant complaining and expressed his frustration to God. The burden of caring for these people had taken its toll and he boldly conveyed his frustration to God. In fact, Moses seems to blame God for the whole state of affairs. He shakes his fist in the face of God and, essentially, accuses Him of abandonment. According to Moses, God had placed all the burden of leading the nation of Israel on his back, and he was overwhelmed by it all. He was tapped out and ready to throw in the towel.

Moses was suffering the same condition as the people he claimed to be leading. He had taken his eyes off of God. He no longer recognized the sovereign hand of God over his life and had lost sight of God’s provision for all his needs. As a result, he had wrongly assumed responsibility for the well-being of God’s people. Moses had ceased to be a conduit of God’s blessing and had begun to believe he was expected to be the source of blessing. But when God had given the people the manna to eat, He had told them it would be a sign of His power and provision.

Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.” – Exodus 16:12 NLT

Yet, Moses and the people had lost sight of that fact. The people had made a god out of food, and Moses had mistakenly placed himself in the place of God. But God was about to correct those mistakes.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.