By Dr. Candace Wood
The book of Numbers is a deeply felt diary of the journey of the Israelites from Mt. Sinai to nearing the entrance of the promised land. It is not a simple record of events, places, and dates—the experiences described within it compel the reader to invisibly join the journey, share the triumphs, and suffer the tragedies alongside these travelers. It is a travel journal of an unexpected sort. This family didn’t just see the sights, visit some historical places, grab quick snacks, stop for bathroom breaks, and fall into bed exhausted after finally finding a spot to sleep at the end of a tiring day. . . . Wait, maybe they did.
Consider that the shortest, most direct route from Sinai to Kadesh, near the destination of Canaan, should have been only about 11 days (Deuteronomy 1:2). But by the time they were there, almost 40 years had passed (Numbers 14:33-35; Deuteronomy 2:14). Maybe it was understandable for the children to whine, “Are we there yet?” They were obviously called “children” of Israel for a reason, you know. Imagine them as the prototypical vacation family whose itinerary got sidetracked and tour route unexpectedly changed, while the family bickered, quarreled, and complained.
How did the Israelite family mess up their own adventure and receive their 40-year punishment? Tracing the journey by their complaints may give us answers.
“We have to eat this again?”
They didn’t get off to a good start. After only three days of travel, they complained about hardships, which was regarded by God as inexcusable (Numbers 11:1-3). Fire broke out, the people panicked, Moses interceded, and all died down. The fire had been limited to the fringes of the campsite and should have helped put their circumstances into perspective, had they been a discerning crowd. They were not.
A second crisis quickly followed. The “rabble” (v. 4)—people who accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt—created quite a stir. They reminisced about their good life back home—the abundance of food, cheap prices, and luxuries—and now bemoaned the lack of meat. One might ask why they did not slaughter some of their own animals if they were so desperate. But to meet the need of such a large multitude likely would have exceeded the ability to replenish the flocks and herds. The mention of specific items such as fish, melons, and onions indicated their craving for variety, more so than a fear of starvation. But it also speaks to the types of foods that would have been their normal dietary choices.
Being served an all-you-can-eat buffet of quail did not bring out the best in the Israelite family. One could suspect that their gluttonous and greedy table manners were the cause of the plague that struck suddenly, even as “the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed” (v. 33). The name given to this place, Kibroth Hattaavah (“graves of craving”), pinpointed the disturbing event and haughty attitudes that occurred.
“You’re not the boss of us!”
The complaints now spread to the leadership. Moses’ own sister and brother used the pretext of his Cushite wife as reason for their reproach toward Moses. It was merely an excuse to wag their tongues over the offense they took at Moses’ supposed superiority. Yet Aaron had been appointed to the high priesthood (Exodus 28:1-5) and Miriam was called a prophet (15:20). So the real problem became obvious when they implied, “Who made you the boss of us?”
They did not have to wait long for an answer. Immediately the Lord gave a good scolding to those partners in crime for undermining Moses and his authority before the assembly (Numbers 12:4). God turned a question on Miriam and Aaron: “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (v. 8). Probably because she had incited the accusation, Miriam was singled out to bear the disgrace of leprosy. It became public knowledge, and Israel had to wait out her punishment with her.
“We’d be better off dead.”
By the time of the fourth complaint, the children of Israel had reached Kadesh, just south of the promised land. The location appeared to have been the central campsite during the wilderness years (Deuteronomy 1:19; Numbers 20:1). At this point their murmuring nearly erupted into mob violence as the distraught people wept, grumbled, and wished they had died in Egypt or in the desert (Numbers 14:1-4). The misery they imagined swiftly charged through the crowd as they seized the idea of stoning Moses and Aaron.
None of the complaints had been sensible for a people who witnessed God’s wonders in many ways. But this complaint triggered extreme consequences for Israel and its future. Although God forgave them because Moses requested it, this was the breaking point at which God pronounced the 40-year sentence of wilderness wandering on Israel until all of that rebellious generation had died. Despite warnings and punishments along the way for wailing about their discomforts and inconveniences, the children of Israel were shocked at the sentence they received. In a last-ditch effort to make amends to God and try to change his mind, they foolishly fought against a stronger military force, the Amalekites and Canaanites (Numbers 14:39-45).
The fifth complaint was another attack on Moses and also Aaron, as three opponents (16:1-40) claimed entitlement to lead Israel. The proximity of these two groups in the camping arrangement made it convenient for this conspiracy to fester. It only brought the wrath of God and the demise of the instigators. The very next day, Israel was still in a foul mood (16:41). Other inciters inflamed the assembly against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of the previous days’ deaths. Just as quickly, God intervened yet again and caused a plague to spread. Without the atonement offered to God by Aaron, more than the 14,700 would have died. When would this family realize that complaints with wrong motives were deadly?
Just like bookends, the first and last complaint grumbled of no food, no water, death in the desert (21:4, 5). Right up to the end, they were still bickering and fretting, making themselves miserable. The poisonous snakes punishment must have been a nightmare in that sandy region. But perhaps the sting of bites was a physical reminder of the God who spared them despite so many setbacks, miseries, and rebellions they had inflamed against him.
The wilderness wanderings took a heavy toll on the Israelites. Even at the end of the journey, they still grumbled. So many times Moses had been the object of attack and abuse from the Israelites as they thought only of themselves. The venture took a heavy toll on him. The water complaint had spurred him to strike the rock he was told to speak to. As a result Moses was disallowed from entering the promised land (Numbers 20:2-12).
The trip finally ended. Psalm 78:14-55 is a fitting summation of this matter. They had been faithless, rebellious, and had tested God, but through all God was merciful, forgiving, and did not destroy. The family sighed deeply and looked over the horizon to envision their new home. Complaints would continue. But so would God’s unfailing love and mercy.
Dr. Candace Wood is a professor and registrar of Blueridge College of Evangelism in Wytheville, Virginia.