The Complaint Department: Numbers 11
I can’t remember the Western movie this line is from, but I once heard an actor say “Some people wouldn’t be happy if you hung them with a new rope.” Now, I can’t say that I’d be happy if you hung me with any sort of rope, but the point was more about how people just complain and complain…
This is where the Israelites are in Numbers 11. They’re not happy. Why? Because all they have to eat is the miraculous bread from heaven that God has been feeding them with, and they have nothing to do but follow the obvious presence of God to the Promised Land. What God? Oh, just the one that they have recently seen bring them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and so forth…
And the complaining does not stop with them. We read Moses like hagiography, and miss the second half of this chapter: Moses has his whiny moments, too. YHWH, the Covenant God of Israel, has to listen to Moses fuss about the call of God in his life. Moses fusses that he never wanted this job, and really would prefer to be left alone.
In fact, he hits Numbers 11:15: “Please kill me at once.” Or, in modern Daff-nese:
It’s just an unhappy passage. The chapter does not get much better. God points out to Moses that he has elders to assist him, so Moses shouldn’t be whining. God then brings quail like the snow geese on a wheat field, and so the people ate meat until they were sick. Literally, actually, as they were stricken with a plague as they ate it.
I do find it of note that the plague at stake is one of the few that does not specify a death toll. It is hard to be certain if this is because the results were simply bad illness, or if there were unrecorded deaths here.
Of greater application, though, is the question of complaining. We like to do that even now, don’t we? We complain about this, that, and the other…often without truly considering how we are blessed beyond measure. How so?
In the same manner the Moses and Israel were blessed:
- We are provided for. Now, you are right to say that you work for your living, true. How much does your work provide? What makes that farm bring forth a crop? And what allows you to eat more than the hay you raise? Why are you able to take your financial wizardry and get milk? Do we honestly ascribe all of these things to our own ingenuity and forget our Creator?
- We are protected. First and most obviously, by men and women at arms but there is more than that. Great armies have often faltered. Moreover, just this year a rock of substantial size came closer to earth than the satellites that make international communication work orbit…people, we are protected more than we know.
- We are provided with. With what? Companions. Notice that there are very few lone heroes, even in our mythologies. Beowulf had companions, Frodo had companions, even the Lone Ranger flopped with Tonto. Look around. You may be alone for a time, and you may think that time is eternal, but there are connectivity points everywhere. Reach out and connect.
- We are preceded. By God, who has already been there and back, and still occupies both the now and the then. That should be a comfort.
So, what do we do?
First, we trust. We trust God with our complaints and our struggles—but we learn to share them rightly. Rather than whine at others, we pour our hearts out to God.
Second, we travel. Not always literally, but always in obedience. God gets the people moving on at the end of the chapter. So should we be: stagnant behavior leads to sour begrudgings. Get moving, get following.
Finally, we train. We put our efforts into being ready. We dedicate ourselves for what we know is coming, and that is the trial that living in a sin-soaked world is.
As we practice this, we will see our complaining shrink. We may never lose it all…but we can stow some of it.
Today’s Nerd Note: Numbers 11:21 hits us with a mixed conundrum on the numbers of Numbers. Back in the early part of the book, we faced the seemingly over-large numbers of Israelites. Some estimates put the warriors at 600,000 and up, and the totals at 2.5 million. Others think that number is way too high, and look for reasons why the text allows lower. (See nerd note here)
Either estimation method has to wrestle with Numbers 11:21, where Moses appears to count the total of Israel at 600,000. Allowing for rounding, that’s still too many for the allegorical view, or even for the “thousands as military divisions” view. It’s not enough for the actual count as one-to-one.
Either way, though, it shows part of what is necessary in dealing with one section of Scripture: you must look to find other mentions of the same concept. This is also true of such issues as Creation understandings and Flood accounts. Where else is the “question” passage referred to? Who says what about it there?