Fire, quail, and a worldly church


complaining agains Moses

The Manna Harvest / Giuseppe Angeli (18th century), but doesn’t it look more like the griping before the manna came?

Have you ever noticed that some people just like to complain? They don’t even need a legitimate reason. Alas, you can easily find them in churches.

But here’s a better question. What is the effect when griping goes into overdrive? It would try the patience of a saint. Or in the case of an Old Testament illustration, Moses. Nobody comes out looking good in the sorry story told in Numbers 11.

We often refer to the people Moses led out of Egypt as the children of Israel. They never acted like grownups, did they? But according to Exodus 12:37-38, 600,000 Israelite men left Egypt, plus the women and children—plus a large number of other people. In Numbers 11 various translations refer to them as the mixed multitude or the rabble.

The rabble

When Pharaoh expelled the Israelites from Egypt, some poor Egyptians and slaves of other ethnic groups decided to go along. There are two ways to look at them.

First, it shows God’s inclusiveness. He makes salvation available to everyone, not just a chosen few.

But a second significance is more important for the purposes of this post. God’s chosen Israelites are a type of the church, and so these outsiders are a type of the world. People in the church ought to be holy, set apart from the world. People in the church ought not let the world influence them.

During 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the people had managed to preserve the ancient stories of Abraham and the Patriarchs. They were kept geographically separate from the rest of Egypt to prevent assimilation into Egyptian culture.

The other people who came out with them probably had no knowledge of these stories. If they did, they clearly applied only to Israel and were therefore of no particular interest. The mixed multitude, like Gentile converts in the New Testament, would have had to accept these stories for themselves and embrace the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel in order to become assimilated into God’s chosen.

Between the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai, the people complained along the way. They didn’t pray. They merely blamed Moses, but they had legitimate needs:

  • The water at they found Marah, the first water they had seen for three days, was not fit to drink. The people grumbled against Moses. Moses prayed. God gave him a temporary fix and then led everyone to an oasis at Elim (Exodus 15:22-27).
  • A month and a half into the journey, the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron that they had no food. God provided manna and quail (Exodus 16).
  • After journeying through the desert, they camped at Rephidim, where again there was no water, and complained against Moses. God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water flowed from it (Exodus 17:1-7)
Numbers 11 quail

The Miracle of the Quails / circle of Otto van Veen, ca. 1600


The people arrived at Mt Sinai and camped there for an entire year.

They fell into idolatry for a while, but during that year they received much of the law.

They also received many supernatural signs not only of God’s presence and majesty, but of his provision and desire to have fellowship with them.

A year on God’s holy mountain should have persuaded everyone to trust God for provision. But in Numbers 11:1, the people complained about hardship again.

What hardship? Nothing is recorded, and this time the complaining aroused God’s wrath. They had no legitimate grievances. Fire broke out until the people cried out to Moses and he prayed.

Numbers 11:4 specifies that the rabble began to complain about having nothing to eat but manna. Had they been leading the complaints all along? In any case, they had food and water. They just didn’t like the menu, which was God’s provision in answer to their earlier complaint.

The outcome of complaining

God promises outcomes. Most often, he makes the promise contingent on some kind of act of obedience and faith. He does not promise that its manifestation will come quickly or that everything will be comfortable and convenient along the way.

For this generation of Israel, the promised outcome was deliverance from slavery in Egypt to settlement as free people in the land promised to their forefather Abraham. But they had to go through the wilderness to get there. Once there, they would have to deal with the people already occupying that land.

But the rabble started to complain about the food. Israel, as the people God chose to redeem the world, had no business being swayed by the thinking and complaints of the world. Today the church exists to redeem the world, and ought not take up its habits.

When the rabble started to complain, the Israelites should have begun to remind them of the bounty of God’s goodness. Instead, they joined in the complaining.

God and Moses both got angry. Unfortunately, they were not angry at the same thing. God was angry with the people’s ingratitude and faithlessness. Moses was angry with God.

The people had directly criticized Moses before, and they would keep it up for the rest of his life. But this time, they were not grumbling about Moses. They were weeping and wailing because they wanted meat.

Stop complainingThe fool says in his heart there is no God. And if there is no God, someone else must be to blame for all the troubles in the world.

So the rabble, followed by all Israel, consistently blamed Moses.

Nowadays we especially blame our leaders, from the government down to the supervisor at work—and the pastor at church.

Even though for once the people were not complaining about Moses, he took it personally.

He blamed God for laying such a burden upon him.

He asked how he was supposed to get meat for everyone. Not for the first time, he tried to resign from task God had given him. He even said, “If this is the way you’re going to treat me, kill me now.”

God has given leaders to the church. If the leaders remain in constant communication with God, and the people follow their example, all is well. If the people in the church start acting like people in the world, eventually they will infect church leaders, who, after all, share in the sin nature.

Harry Truman famously had a plaque on his desk that said “The buck stops here,” but that didn’t mean he thought he was responsible for seeing to every little detail himself. Moses did, and it caused him a lot of unnecessary anguish.

But in a sense, the buck never stops on our desk. The only reason Moses was leading the children of Israel is that God appointed him. That’s the only reason anyone has any position of leadership. And we are all leaders somewhere and followers somewhere else.

We owe it to the rest of the church and its leaders, and especially to God himself, to act in faith and trust that God will take responsibility for keeping his promises. We need only draw near to him to receive strength to do our part and meet his conditions. And quit complaining.

Image credits:
The paintings are public domain. The stop complaining photo and variants appear all over the Internet without attribution.

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